Those that knew Joe Papetti tend to use the same adjectives to describe the man.
Tough. Gruff. Hard-nosed. Demanding. No nonsense. Old school.
For John Pilli and Mitch Suplee, who played for Papetti at Glen Burnie and South River, respectively, one description is most apt: Great football coach.
“Even as a high school kid I could tell that Coach Papetti had a tremendous mind for the game,” said Pilli, a key member of the 1967 Glen Burnie team that went undefeated.
“What really sticks out in my mind is that Coach Papetti could and would coach any position. He could teach the offensive line how to block and the cornerbacks how to cover,” said Suplee, a two-way standout on the 1984 South River squad that was Class A state runner-up.
Papetti remains one of the most legendary figures in Anne Arundel County high school football history, having founded the programs at both Glen Burnie and South River. He is one of only four coaches in county history to amass 150 or more career wins.
The longtime Edgewater resident, who died almost two decades ago, was indeed a great football coach and that fact will be recognized next month when he is posthumously inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame.
Baseball standouts Derek Hasselhoff and Craig Wilson along with record-setting football tailback Tanardo Sharps are also part of the 2019 class that will be formally enshrined during the 29th annual Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame banquet, being held Oct. 16 at Michael’s Eighth Avenue.
Papetti compiled a career record of 154-81-3 (.647) over 24 seasons at Glen Burnie and South River. He was the first football coach in Glen Burnie history, leading the program in its inaugural season of 1964.
Papetti directed Glen Burnie to the only undefeated season in school history in 1967 with players such as linebacker Ed DeGrange, quarterback Ned Spilker, tackle Glynn Stoffel among others. DeGrange, who received the Rhodes Trophy as the best player in Anne Arundel County that year, led a hard-hitting defense that recorded shutouts in five of nine wins by the Gophers.
In October 2017, that Glen Burnie club held a 50th year reunion and the former players, now in their 70s, still displayed great reverence for Papetti. Papetti’s son and namesake along with his widow Mary Joe attended the reunion to represent the head coach.
“My dad loved football and loved all his players and he was a master of his trade so to speak, but this was his only undefeated team and this group was special for him,” the younger Joe Papetti said. “My dad would reminisce very infrequently, but when he talked about some of his past teams it was most often this one. He had this great pride in the success this team had.”
Pilli was recruited to the Naval Academy to play lacrosse, but wound up as a two-sport athlete after also making the football team. He gained a greater appreciation for Papetti’s football knowledge and ability to impart it to players after joining the Midshipmen.
“I adjusted quickly to college football because I had been taught all the proper fundamentals by Coach Papetti. I was not overwhelmed because what the coaches were teaching at Navy wasn’t all that much different from what I learned in high school,” Pilli said.
While at Glen Burnie, Papetti coached two players that went on to play in the National Football League. Wayne Fowler was an offensive lineman who became a seventh-round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills and spent two seasons in the pros. Bill Currier, the 1972 Rhodes Trophy winner, was a ninth-round pick of the Houton Oilers and played nine seasons in the NFL.
Papetti left Glen Burnie to become the first football coach and athletic director at South River High, which opened in 1978. The Seahawks enjoyed early success with such standouts as Paul Noone, Rennie Smith and Marvin Sesker leading the way.
South River captured three region championships (1982, 1984 and 1986) under Papetti. Quarterback Ray Kingsfield (William & Mary), linebacker-tight end Clay Hall (Towson), offensive guard Craig Washington (Navy), offensive tackle Tony Downs (Weber State) and Suplee were key members of the 1984 team that lost to Kennedy in the Class A state championship.
Suplee, who earned a scholarship to the University of Maryland and enjoyed a decorated collegiate career, came from a broken home and to this day considers Papetti a father figure.
“I got there in ninth grade and didn’t even know how to put my pads into my pants. Coach Papetti taught me everything about football from the ground up. He saw a lump of coal and turned it into a diamond,” Suplee said.
“I respected the man, I looked up to the man and I listened carefully to every word of advice from the man. That does not mean we were close,” Suplee added. “About the best way I can describe Coach Papetti is that there was no confusion about who was the employee and who was in the boss. We all definitely knew who was in charge.”
Suplee, who enjoyed a lengthy professional career in the Arena Football League and was inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame in 2013, remembers getting in trouble as a freshman at Maryland for saying out loud that he had already learned a specific technique in high school.
“Coach Papetti stressed fundamentals. We would run the same play in practice 20 times in a row until it was done perfectly. Almost right wasn’t good enough,” Suplee said. “We only ran seven or eight plays in games. Our opponents knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop it.”
Among the many great football players to come through South River during the Papetti era were the Baldwin brothers (Danny and Robert), linebacker Alan Argent, defensive back Tom Bresnahan, 1983 Rhodes Trophy winner Mike White and two-way lineman Tim Brooks (North Carolina).
Papetti employed an I-formation running attack at Glen Burnie and believed strongly in “three yards and a cloud of dust,” according to Pilli. He switched to a Wing-T offense at South River, but was not afraid to diversify from that.
After living out of state for many years, Suplee returned to Anne Arundel County and will never forget going to Friendly’s in Edgewater one day. There was a long line and Suplee’s wife told a group of elderly folks not to bother getting out of their car because of the wait.
Suplee stopped dead in his tracks when he heard a man say with a monotone voice: “All I wanted was an ice cream cone.” He flashed back 20-plus years to the practice field at South River High.
“There were two things about Coach Papetti that you would never forget – the voice and the look,” Suplee said. “That voice was ingrained in all of our heads, while I would rather have Coach Papetti yell at me than give me that ‘I’m disappointed’ look.”
Joe Papetti, the 1980 Rhodes Trophy winner, played football for his father at South River and went on to a solid career as a defensive back at Navy. Ken Dunn, who served as an assistant to Papetti throughout his South River tenure, says he has never seen a head coach handle having a son on the team better than the elder Papetti.
“My dad was all business, all the time. He was a perfectionist who was very demanding. He could be harsh and impatient at times,” the younger Papetti said. “But I’ll tell you what. No coach was more beloved by his players. There is no greater compliment than having players say they would run through a wall for their coach. To a man, all of my dad’s players felt that way about him.”
An example of the straight-forward, old-school style of coaching the elder Papetti brought to the field? “I remember dad telling an offensive lineman: Your job is to block the linebacker and if you can’t figure out how to do it your next position will be on the bench.”
Competitive and Compassionate
Dunn was hired to coach varsity boys’ basketball when South River opened in 1978 and was asked by Papetti to assist with football. It was the beginning of a long friendship that doubled as a mentorship.
“Joe was extremely fundamental and basic with everything he did. He was a real taskmaster who kept things simplistic and expected the players to execute,” Dunn said.
Dunn, who played football at Severna Park for Coach George Roberts and returned to his alma mater as an assistant under Andy Borland, had heard stories about Papetti long before meeting the man.
“I remember asking Coach Roberts who Severna Park was playing that week and he said: ‘The Glen Burnie meat grinders.’ That was a great compliment to Papetti, whose teams were always very tough and physical,” Dunn said.
Dunn was always impressed by how Papetti handled the teenage boys he was trying to mold into men. Toughness came with a dose of understanding while discipline came with an innate sense of compassion.
“Joe was the type of coach who could step on your shoes and not mess up your shine. He could correct a kid without belittling them,” Dunn said. “Joe treated kids like adults. He had great expectations and held them to a high standard. Joe believed that sports didn’t build character, it revealed it.”
Dunn described Papetti as" one of the most competitive people you will ever meet.” Papetti could be cutthroat on the racquetball court and routinely challenged Dunn at pitching pennies. He was an outstanding golfer who regularly played at the Naval Academy course in retirement.
Joe and Mary Joe Papetti raised two children in the Southdown Shores community of Edgewater. Coach Papetti owned a boat and loved nothing more than going fishing or crabbing on the South River. He was totally devoted to Mary Joe, who was a guidance counselor at Southern and South River.
“Dad had two personalities. There was the football coach and the family man,” the younger Joe Papetti said. “Off the field, dad was incredibly positive and an excellent motivator. I would say he possessed youthful wisdom. Family was very important to my father and that was obvious to anyone who really knew him.”
Papetti grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia and was an All-State selection in football and basketball. He earned a football scholarship to West Virginia University and was a member of the 1953 Sugar Bowl team.
Papetti was inducted into the Maryland Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1992. South River named its main stadium “Papetti Field” in honor of the school’s first football coach and athletic director, who died on July 22, 2010.
Papetti is just the fifth high school football coach chosen for the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame – joining Al Laramore (1992), Jerry Mears (1994), Chuck Markiewicz (2014) and Jeff Herrick (2018).